‘This is the time fraudsters kick in’: Food fraud warnings as sunflower oil runs dry

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Marcus Z-pics
Image: Getty/Marcus Z-pics

Related tags Fraud Adulteration Ukraine-Russia conflict

Food adulteration cases could rise as companies seek alternatives to those foodstuffs, such as sunflower oil, impacted by the conflict in Ukraine, it has been cautioned.

According to the UK Food and Drink Federation, the greatest concerns relate to the availability of sunflower oil and derived ingredients. There are also concerns relating to rapeseed oil, white fish, herb oils, packaging raw materials and wider impacts on global cereals markets. Impacts on fertiliser may present wider challenges for UK agricultural producers.

Ukraine is the fourth largest producer and exporter of agricultural goods in the world. Russia’s invasion of its neighbour has significantly disrupted Ukrainian agricultural production. Stocks of sunflower oil – a key Ukrainian and Russian export – are critically short, warned Kate Halliwell of FDF. 

She told a webinar event hosted by the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) Europe that the FDF is seeing companies already “out of supplies”​ of sunflower oil and derived ingredients such as emulsifiers.

What’s more, the latest grocery market figures from Kantar in the UK show evidence of some stocking up as consumers prepare for limited availability along with higher prices.

“Last weekend several supermarkets introduced restrictions on cooking oil purchases as concerned consumers filled up their cupboards,”​ said Fraser McKevitt, Head of Retail and Consumer Insight Fraser. “The combination of rising prices and increased demand saw the cooking oil market grow by 17% over April. Sunflower oil, Britain’s most popular choice for frying, and vegetable oil grew even faster, up by 27% and 40% respectively.”

The UK, along with some other governments in Europe, has also started to allow manufacturers to use rapeseed oil in recipes without the need for labelling changes. The UK authorities have so far held up a similar relaxing of the rules over using palm oil substitution over health and sustainability concerns. Halliwell, however, revealed the FDF is anticipating adding further other oils “in the next week or two” ​in order to broaden out this derogation to other ingredients.

Nutritional concerns

But different sources may not cut the mustard in terms of nutritional composition. Different oils may have a different composition of fatty acids, for instance. "Now that we may be confronted with a change in the sourcing of materials, it will be a challenge to identify which other sources could provide for similar nutrients,” ​noted Professor Hans Verhagen, a food safety and nutrition expert from the University of Nijmegen.

Food adulteration risks rife

The situation also threatens to increase instances of food adulteration. The EFSA estimated food fraud incidents rose 30% during COVID, observed Dr. Bert Popping, managing director of the strategic food consulting company FOCOS. Things could get worse in the current crisis, he warned.  "This is very likely to increase now with the heightened situation where we have additional shortages of fertilisers. COVID brought disruption in the supply change. Now there are gaps in the supply chain because we have price rises; we have lack of wheat from Ukraine; we have lack of sunflower oil and not all of that can be easily compensated.”

Sunflower oil has been found to be adulterated with edible and non-edible oils in the past. Some of the common adulterants are castor oil and paraffin oil. Though simple methods are available for detecting adulteration, often the fraudsters are one step ahead of the testers.

The “food industry is well advised to re-visit their vulnerability assessment in light of the current crisis”,​ said Popping. "We need to be aware that the fraudsters are extremely innovative. We need to be on the lookout because the risk is heightened because we have the shortage of sunflower oils and prices are going through the roof. This is the time fraudsters kick in. We're aware of the risk with caster and paraffin but need to be on the lookout for new ones."

Allergen concerns

Instances of food fraud may also give rise to an increased rise of allergenicity if, for example, an oil is adulterated with a cheaper peanut oil.

Popping stressed that companies revisit their food vulnerability assessments. “If you have a new supplier you basically need to go through the auditing process. You need to make sure the supplier has a history of providing safe food and food according to the specification; you still need to do the spot checks maybe more frequently now than before so there are counter measures you can put in place to protect your food manufacturing business from being in the headlines for all the wrong reasons." 

Chris Elliott, director of the Institute for Global Food Safety, not in the webinar, told FoodNavigator: "I know of many food companies scrambling to reformulate food products due to lack of various forms of oils (sunflower, rapeseed & olive oil and I don’t think palm oil shortages are too far away either). The potential breaches of labelling laws are quite high, potential food allergen issues are also worrying. All companies currently reformulating must keep food safety front and centre of their thinking as the potentail for unintended consequences are very high. I’m also concerned about the fraud angle where companies maybe buying products that have either been adulterated or substituted with other forms of oil. The risks here are even greater than those I’ve outlined above." 

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